After her family emigrated to the United States, in 1992, Moscow-raised Ellen Litman studied computers at the University of Pittsburgh. Later, she wrote fiction, winning The Atlantic Monthly's 2003 fiction contest. And last year, W.W. Norton published The Last Chicken in America, Litman's "novel in stories" about Russian-Jewish immigrants in Squirrel Hill.
The title story finds a teen-age immigrant marinating in envy and repulsion in this strange New World. With cliquish girlfriends, an awkward Russian boy who takes an interest, and parents who have even less idea how to fit in than she does, she notes details like "flabby Americans" in a supermarket parking lot, "load[ing] chickens into the trunks of their all-absorbing cars."
The "novel" designation notwithstanding, the stories feel pretty discrete, rendering a range of moods and voices in sharply observed sentences, evoking a cultural dislocation in which engineers work as bakery deliverymen and even "Judaism" means something different. "What Do You Dream Of, Cruiser Aurora?" depicts the odd, tentative dependence of a melancholy older man upon a fellow new immigrant (even as his culture fades from his family's lives before his eyes). "Charity" finds 18-year-old Masha babysitting for affluent American Jews, acutely aware of her "sponsored-Jew" status. And a weary, sarcastic tone takes over in "In the Man-Free Zone," about a middle-aged divorcee. ("'Fabulous,' I say. 'Fantastic.' I'm proficient in basic American pleasantries.")
The New York Times called Last Chicken an "elegantly constructed web of stories ... warm, true and original, and packed with incisive, subtle one-liners."
Litman, who teaches at the University of Connecticut, visits the Gist Street Reading Series on Nov. 7, along with poet Miriam Levine, of Massachusetts and Florida, whose collection The Dark Opens won Pittsburgh-based Autumn House Press's 2008 prize.
Ellen Litman and Miriam Levine at the Gist Street Reading Series 8 p.m. Fri., Nov. 7. James Simon's Sculpture Studio, 305 Gist St., Uptown. $5. 412-489-0404 or www.giststreet.org